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Monday, November 3, 2014

How We Teach Science: Science as Relgion

American science is a litany of Scientific saints.  Newton, Galileo, Edison and the Wright Brothers. We make the nod to minorities by recognizing George Washington Carver and Madame Curie.  Science is misrepresented in the classroom, with the result of most students alienated from the scientific process and discovery. 

We tie science in with the national mythology of progress, highlighting improvement and accumulation of knowledge with a triumphal narrative.  Classroom experiments involve predetermined questions, steps and outcomes.  Rarely is a genuine question asked and if it is (and the answer isn't in the textbook) it is left unanswered and worse, uninvestigated. 

So when an American says Science is just another religion, they aren't simply being ignorant.   They may be reflecting a keen observation of Science education in this country.  We are spoon-fed wrote answers and expected to regurgitate.  Rewards are received for performance and conformity, silencing curiosity and innovation because they are inefficient class-time management.   We are told our futures depend on our ability to perform.  The Good Textbook rules over all (until the next edition).

This obscures how science grows in fits and starts often overgrowing with factions competing for minds until disagreement and confusion rule.  Only a scientific revolution prunes and trellises this overgrowth. 

But we are unaware that this disagreement and confusion is a sign of an imminent paradigm shift, we simply read it as chaos.  We don't know that most experiments end in failure and that persistence and rethinking the questions asked are key to solving the riddles in our universe. 

This misunderstanding is compounded by well-intentioned individuals like Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson who seek to engage the public in science by highlighting science's predictive powers, assurance and material benefits.  They want us to fall in love with going to Mars but don't give us the real picture that will allow us to develop a long term relationship with the scientific process.

Even those of us in the "sciences" are disenfranchised from a deep understanding of Science.  For the professional scientist it's the manipulation of numbers, the collection of data, the rat-race of publish or perish.  Understanding the Scientific process is relegated to the philosophers who read Thomas S. Kuhn (and even they struggle with it).  This widespread scientific illiteracy is satirized by The Big Bang Theory.

What if science education looked more like this:

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